A response to the Frieze Talk:
Alt-Monuments

 Images feature  Hew Locke’s  work ‘Restoration’.

Images feature Hew Locke’s work ‘Restoration’.

 
 

Frieze Art Fair is an exhibition that features and celebrates innovative artists and galleries from around the world. Alongside the critically acclaimed artworks and programmes, Frieze Talks are held at the fair each year, and one in particular sparked the interest of The [204] Design Collective: Alt-Monuments. (https://frieze.com/fairs/frieze-london)

You can listen to the full talk here: https://frieze.com/fair-programme/listen-alt-monuments

The topic:
How should we commemorate history in public?
“As societies - and art institutions - increasingly debate how to commemorate history in public places, what kind of alternative monuments might make most sense for this moment, and what are we to do with all those existing statues honouring morally reprehensible figures from our past?” [1]

The panel: Jeremy Deller (artist UK), Antony Gormley (artist, UK) and Adam Pendleton (artist, USA)

Chaired by: Ralph Rugoff (Director of Hayward Gallery, London)

 

The following is The [204] Design Collective’s critical response to Alt-Monuments - a panel discussion held on Friday October 6th at Frieze London.

Discussion Point:
“I think that the answer to this thorny question (should we take monuments down in public spaces) is that we are all children of bad histories. And, my feeling is these things still have potency in exactly the opposite way to the heroism that they originally promoted...I think that these things remain as instruments of conscience and until, in a way, we have some other history that is more critical, they have to remain as really horrible thorns in our collective flesh.” – Antony Gormley

[204]: There are two issues with this statement. First, it homogenizes people’s experiences. Second, it suggests that the ideologies and discourses that these monuments uphold are somehow in the past.

The opportunity that these monuments might provide to reflect and learn about history does not diminish the fact that their presence in public spaces is inappropriate and potentially dangerous. Public spaces and civic spaces are designed to reflect national values. They are designed to encourage and allow for social and cultural exchange. As such, they form and communicate a narrative of who we are as a society and the values that we uphold.  The largely masculine and militaristic figures that these monuments depict act as a physical and narrative reminder of the trauma inflicted upon the colonized and the enslaved.

To advocate for the continued presence of these monuments in public spaces not only reflects the lack of understanding of the generational effects/trauma of colonialism and slavery on black and brown bodies but also disregards the enduring institutionalized racial violence that people of colour experience today. The ideologies that these monuments represent are steeped in racism, oppression, and violence, and the continued presence of these monuments in public spaces uphold these values.

Discussion Point:
How do we deal with monuments with ‘infamous histories’: Monuments vs. Memorials?

[204]: As mentioned in the previous point, this question assumes that the ideologies these monuments uphold are in the past. Even the use of the term ‘infamous histories’ to describe the context in which these monuments were erected diminishes the very complex and often very violent social and political atmosphere of the time. The point here is that the language we use to remember and reflect on these events in history can be shaped by the things we experience or are made to experience in the public realm - when we choose to commemorate those who have committed atrocities by erecting a monument in their name and likeness, in the middle of a public space, we therefore sanction the erasure of the atrocity itself and its lasting influence as well as victims of those atrocities.

At this point, it is important that a distinction be made between monument and memorial. Those who argue that the removal of these monuments somehow erases history or collective memory conflate monument with memorial. The issue with conflating the two was highlighted in the discussion when Gormley stated that monuments serve as instruments of conscience that cause us to remember our bad histories.

Memorials in public spaces provide the opportunity to reflect, remember, and respect. Monuments are meant to glorify, revere, and commemorate.

As cited by Pendleton as an example, many of the confederate monuments in America were erected at very distinctive moments in American history when values such as equality and freedom were gaining momentum as national trademarks. While the monuments were of confederate militia, the majority were erected after the Civil War in the early 20th century to reinforce and justify Jim Crow Segregation in the South;

“Most monuments were dedicated in the decades following the Civil War's end, tied to the 50- and 100-year anniversaries—and to conflicts over race and nationality that were then simmering.”[2]

This demonstrates the the effect of monuments in public spaces their ability to control narrative and collective memory, making them very different from war memorials.

Discussion Point: What is the social responsibility of art? Can art ever be apolitical?

[204]: At the end of the discussion, Rugolf made a call to revisit what should be allowed in our public spaces.

There is an element of reinforced nationalism in public spaces that is achieved through physical monument. The installation of monuments in city squares and parks were installed with political, historical, and social implications. 

In America, confederate statues were erected at a time when collective identity and national unity excluded black people.[3]

In Europe, colonial monuments were erected to celebrate the empire and its conquests over the colonized.

Who then do these monuments remain in public space for? Whose collective identity and history do these monuments uphold and represent?

Art is made for people. It is activated by viewers and the bodies that interact with it. Art in the form of monument is given status and poignancy due to its public platform. It is not possible to consider monuments devoid of physical, social, political, and cultural context. To do this is to do a disservice to the public as well as to art.

While we appreciate that Frieze Art Fair is a platform for artists, we felt it important to encourage an interdisciplinary and intersectional conversation around the subject of Alt-Monuments and the design of public spaces. As Gormley stated, we are still at a moment in time where the role of art in the public realm is still contested, especially in context of social responsibility. As such conversations and debates centred around this topic are not only relevant but essential - we thank the Frieze Art Fair for organizing such a thought provoking discussion and for providing a platform for artists around the world.

Let us know what you think by e-mailing us at the204designcollective@gmail.com or tweeting us @204_design

[1] https://frieze.com/fairs/frieze-london/events/event/1295291
[2]https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/charlottesville-confederate-memorials-civil-war-racism-history/
[3] ibid.